Lord Pitor Magara was late. Jeshen pursed his lips in exasperation. His father never had thought Jeshen’s time was valuable, and he wasted it frequently. While Jeshen appreciated the finer things in life, spinning his thumbs in his father’s study was not one of them. Lord Pitor liked his clutter; Jeshen despised the haphazard juxtapositions. Not that any of the clutter was déclassé; no, it was just all thrown together with no thought for the visual appeal, and Heavens help the poor maid who thought to straighten things up in here.
An evil idea sparked in Jeshen’s mind, tugging a sly grin onto his face. He arched an eyebrow at Markus, his armsman on duty, who stood by the door. Markus, recognizing incipient rebellion, shook his head and pointedly checked the fit of his energy pistol in its holster. Jeshen felt his grin stretch to bare teeth. Sure, it was petty vengeance, but sometimes petty was all a man had.
Now, that illiarium dragon statue would peak nicely from behind the replica Ming vase, but not next to the jade Budda — their greens clashed. Buddah and the Tzimzi reflecting pool would look much better by the window ….
Jeshen was perched on his seat edge and playing with the cuffs of his morning suit when his father’s armsman opened the door. The armsman’s step hitched and her shoulders twitched with suppressed mirth as she took up a position opposite Markus at the door. Her jaw quivered as she sent a silent comm to Markus. “Your pip squeak looking for more troubles?”
“My ‘pip squeak’ hears all my comm traffic, route’s his through my net. Discretion, Niv, even among friends.”
“Why would he do that?”
Jeshen dipped his head. Markus answered, “An armsman’s Recall is always on, more tamper-proof. It’s a way to cover your ass at court.”
Lord Pitor paused in the door frame, taking in the changes his youngest had made in his study. The only pieces not moved were the collection of rare geodes locked behind his desk. His nostrils flared and lips tightened, but all he said was, “Good, you’re here.”
Affecting ennui, Jeshen continued his adjustments. “You did summon me, Father.”
Pitor snorted. “That hasn’t brought you running in the past.”
“Well, as it turns out, I have some matters to attend to in Maga.”
“So, I’ve been informed.” Pitor gave a slight shake of his head and moved behind his desk. “Where ever did you — No. No, I don’t really need to ask how you came to meet that Rittar … person, now do I? Isabey.”
“Her Imperial Highness Heir Minor Princess Isabey did play some small part in the introduction.”
“He’s not exactly armsman material, Jeshen. Don’t be foolish.”
“If I’m being foolish, well, it certainly won’t be the first time. However, Johann comes very well recommended.”
Pitor drew himself up and clasped his hands behind his back. Jeshen recognized the familiar lecturing pose. He didn’t bother to mask the boredom it evoked.
“Armsmen are an extension of their liege. They speak with our authority and act with our imprimatur. They are more than simple guards. You can hire muscle, you can hire intelligence, you can even hire discretion, but you cannot hire loyalty or integrity. An armsman lacking any one of those is unfit to bear our crest. This Rittar boy, he’s trouble, a jumped up thug and a washed out Marine.”
Jeshen interrupted, “I’d hardly call taking early retirement from the Imperial Guard to enter my service ‘washing out’.”
Pitor leaned forward, braced on his desk. “And when he’s convicted, you will be officially censored!”
“And what will he be convicted of?”
“The IIB has their finger dust all over Rittar’s file — especially on his med scans.”
The angry tension drained out of Jeshen, and he settled back into his seat. Tapping a finger to his chin, he mused out loud, “How … interesting. ImpVest runs backgrounds at random on all the Guard, but not usually on the med scans. What would they be looking for that wouldn’t show up in the regular subversion checks?”
Pitor straightened, some tension draining from his shoulders, and resumed his lecturing pose. “Isabey is still under age.”
“And her Imperial Highness won’t come of age for another five years, so?”
“It’s two more for her to reach the age of consent.”
Jeshen blinked at his father, then burst out laughing. “Is that the latest rumor?”
Pitor raised his eyebrows and bestowed a sardonic look upon his child.
“Rittar would have demolished Johann if that was the case! He’d hardly be putting in a good word for him!” Seeing his father’s confusion, Jeshen explained, “Konstance Rittar, Princess Isabey’s Armsman. You do recall me mentioning him before?”
“And his nepotism is to be trusted? Jeshen, you have to learn to think things through.”
Jeshen shrugged and flicked his fingers to the side. “People will believe what they will, despite any evidence before them. If that’s all, I have an Assignment to go file.” He pushed himself up from the chair.
Pitor waved Jeshen back. “That is not all. Oh, it is the reason I summoned you, but that disgraceful … prank of your gang’s has since reached my ears.”
Jeshen, still standing, rolled his eyes and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Margot’s a bit over-enthused with the princess, true, and the High Lord Chamberlain is definitely not. If he stuck to his job and ceased attempting to undermine Isabey, he’d never have made himself a target for the girl’s devilry.”
Pitor folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t try fobbing all the blame off on diSinley’s little hell spawn. From all accounts, you had something to do with it.”
“I was speaking with Timbon at the time her little stink bomb went off. Took three trips through the cleaners to get the stench off my suits.” Jeshen sniffed in affected annoyance, but the twinkle in his eye ruined the charade. “Of course, it’s rather difficult to put a living body through the cleaners.”
Pitor slammed his palm on the desk top. “I will not have it!”
Jeshen raised his eyebrows at his father’s temper display. “No, that would be a rather nasty way to kill someone, now wouldn’t it?”
“I will not have it anymore, Jeshen!” Pitor closed his eyes, fury blotching his skin. “It’s damn time you grew up, and those heathens you run with are not helping matters! As your liege, I forbid you to maintain contact with those outrés.”
Jeshen resumed adjusting his shirt cuffs, studiously not looking at his sire. “And here I thought you wanted me to cultivate imperial favor, my lord.”
“Don’t you ‘my lord’ me!” Pitor ran a palsied hand over his bald plate. “Now, none of this ‘cultivating favor’ nonsense! You may be a third son, but you are a man grown and one of the public faces of Fife Magara, and you will act like it! Since you seem to have so much free time on your hands that you can spend collaborating on elaborate pranks, you should find ample time to take over our House’s charity works. I will personally introduce you to the heads of the foundations we support. Do not disappoint me.” The implicit “again” vibrated between them.
Jeshen paused in his fidgeting, frozen for a moment, before he assumed an insipid air. “And when her Imperial Highness Princess Isabey requires my attendance, what then shall I do? Am I to refuse an imperial summons … my lord?”
“I told you — ”
“My father cannot command me. Does my liege require me to refuse an imperial summons?”
Pitor’s lips whitened, and he turned, pacing behind the desk. “Of course not, but you will not initiate such contact. She’s the ringleader of your set and the worst of troublemakers, protected as she is by her rank. Thank the Heavens that Prince Maynor and Prince Drew are both of sound character and stand between her and the Imperial Throne! I doubt I’d much care to live in an empire ruled by Princess Isabey!”
Pitor, his back turned, missed seeing the fury that flashed across his son’s face. “My lord, one of these days you will find yourself eating those words, and, as you so adroitly pointed out, I am a man grown and not the willful child who would once have delighted to see that come about. I pray you survive the shock of it.”
Jeshen spun on his heel and sailed out of the room, ignoring the sputtering rage he left behind. Choking on his anger, he stalked off to the stables.